Friday, November 11, 2011

moving toward wings

When I was fourteen years old, I imagined a person’s soul left their body as a winged thing. I say imagined because I did not believe this to be the case. I did not believe in God, but I wanted to believe that we still had souls and that they were inclined to elegant forms. It was a game I played, assigning vessels to the soul’s departure. I told friends You are a kite, You are an airship, You are so many bats.

Inherent in this was the idea that flight had been neatly stored inside them.

It calmed me to think of golden balloons leaving a body. Silver birds, fireworks, anything that might ascend. I did not think of angels or even ghosts. Always the soul took a non-human form—sometimes natural, sometimes mechanical. Of course Leonardo da Vinci would leave his body in one of his flying machines. But where was it that he would go?

All carry on-items should be stored securely in an overhead bin or in the seat in front of you

Every trip to the airport I pretend to be an anthropologist. I think about nomadic imperative, the mixed-nut subsistence neatly packaged, the hierarchy of hot airline stewardesses. I wonder how comfortable people are in this liminal space, where the clouds consume the craft and time seems unreal.

I look to the crew, to see if they have adjusted differently than those of us who take to the sky only on occasion. Pilots stride so confidently through terminals that the floor beneath them, however anchored, seems of little consequence. Airline stewardesses always strike me as secretly sad. Maybe it is a lie inherent in the job description: they are promised so many escapes and yet they keep returning to the same airports.

I have cried on three occasions in airports, once for a woman and once for a man and once with longing for America. I sometimes wonder if that crying girl was really me. After all, she was in a foreign land where the hours passed differently and so her feelings came to her in a way they do not come to me now. In a place of so many comings and goings, how can I fail to leave my body and become someone else?

The suitcase is neatly packed and stowed. The material aspect has been considered. Now the lights are dimming and the only remaining question is what to do with thoughts and wants. The narrative we make of them, especially on voyages.

All carrion items. Should be storied.

At this time, please be sure that your seat back is returned to its upright position.

How is it that we came to our upright position? Our bones betray what crooked creatures we are. Anthropologists have theorized that brachiation, the swinging by the arms from tree limb to tree limb in primates, led to bipedalism. The straightening of the back required for such a feat, how we learned to leave our legs beneath us while we look ahead.

One sees the classic cartoon: from crawling ape, to lumbering ape, to homo erectus. One wonders what comes next in our evolution. Brash as our standing is.

We never evolved to get our wings. It seems all too apparent how cleanly they would fit, fixed to our shoulder blades. Instead we fashioned them from steel. Drag and lift.

Because it is a technological and not a physical adaptation, our bodies will never fly seamlessly. Since we are precisely evolved for life on the ground, pilots must train to avoid sensory illusions that occur in flight. Empiricism fails in the air. Our eyes and ears produce false climbs and graveyard spins.

Most profound to me is that rush down the runway, when we know we are not walking or running but hurtling and our organs seem to lag as we defy gravity. Just before takeoff, every part of me is pressed against the seat, held by forward motion. Then there is that terrible and wonderful moment where we are lifted and my insides float suspended, and it feels like there is nothing inside me at all.

Stewards of the air had promised: Exit path lighting will illuminate to guide you.

People travel side-by-side across the world and do not even ask each other their name. It has always been a bad habit of mine to fill in people’s silences for them. This is harmless when it comes to strangers on planes and devastating when it comes to bedfellows. It seems every person I meet is looking for exits. Desire made me believe I could be such an exit, that people removed their clothes in the effort to escape exteriors. I was surprised to find there were shallower reasons for sex and that people who long to leave do not look for reasons to stay but simply leave.

And it makes a certain sense. Distance allows a pattern to emerge that is invisible on the ground. Suburban neighborhoods form surprising designs and lakes are artfully placed as inkspots. The lights of cities appear cast like a drop-net of stars. Looking down from above, everything is so tidy. Closeness wrecks it all. See also: intimacy issues; wax wings.

When it came to other people, I thought there would be an illuminated path. The body constellated, easy to discern. I thought that path was made of words. But there are passages that language does not enter and does not affect. Our time together is short. Everything will be abridged.

Always there is the lore of the black box. It sounds like something out of a Greek myth: the tragedy recorded, voices contained after death in an indestructible box. Black boxes are actually bright orange so that they can be easily found in the event of a plane crash. The term “black box” simply refers to any system whose production can be observed but not its inner functions. A human mind is probably the best example of a black box.

It’s been some time since I gave up my young notion of winged souls in the body. We have no wings of our own but we have an unknown engine in us. The mind is opaque and inscrutable and can conceive of its own ending. It unraveled the secret of flight but does not know itself. I find this absurd and then again, very ordinary.

When disaster strikes, the oxygen masks descend. I wonder what that air tastes like.

Once while sitting in a terminal a moth landed at my feet. It fluttered about on the dirty carpet and I thought vaguely of Virginia Woolf. She wrote of moments of being—a term no one could adequately explain to me, but which seemed to indicate a pulling back of the wool. Some bright instant in which, to use Woolf’s own words, “we are the thing itself.”

I watched the moth hop about. I wondered how it got in, how it might get out. What it thought of all those steel birds wheeling on the tarmac.

Animals gifted with wings do not make distinctions between moments of being and non-being. And yet I would not prefer their delicate lives.

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